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Kazakhstan: Opposition Facing Hurdles Well Ahead Of Presidential Poll

  • Bruce Pannier --> Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (file photo) Presidential elections aren't scheduled in Kazakhstan until late 2006. But the opposition is already receiving reminders that the campaign won't be easy. There have been two reported attempts to attack the opposition candidate for president. There have also been clashes between young people and police because of clothing interpreted as supporting pro-democracy revolutions, as well as the closure of one of the country's few remaining independent newspapers.

Prague, 11 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- According to his campaign team, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai has avoided two attacks since 9 April. On that day, the lone opposition presidential candidate so far was in the northeastern city of Oskemen (aka Ust-Kamenogorsk) when someone threw a brick at him. Tuyakbai escaped injury. At least two others standing nearby were not so lucky.

Local authorities have cast doubt on Tuyakbai's version of events.

In another incident, in early May, Tuyakbai and members of his opposition bloc, For a Just Kazakhstan, were meeting at a hotel in the southern city of Shymkent. A group of some 300 people suddenly entered the meeting hall. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting says some in the group carried signs reading, "You are the shame of the nation." Others held aloft placards proclaiming support for President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who is also a declared candidate in the next presidential poll.

Fighting broke out in the hotel. Tuyakbai escaped unharmed, but others were caught up in the brawl, which reportedly destroyed the meeting hall.

Altynbek Sarsenbaev is a leader in the unregistered opposition Naghyz Ak Zhol party, which has already thrown its support behind Tuyakbai. Sarsenbaev was among those injured in the meeting hall melee. He said he was surprised at the ferocity of the attack.

"First of all, we never thought they'd resort to such banditry," Sarsenbaev said, hinting at perceived official sanctioning of the attack. "We've been in this country for 14 years [of independence], and any kind of injustice used to have certain norms and limits. To go beyond these limits means to go out of control. Now we see that those in power are ready to go beyond the accepted limits. We'll see what's going to happen in other regions we're going to visit."

The authorities have denied any connection to the incident, and President Nazarbaev has ordered an investigation. No arrests have been made, however.

In another incident in May, police in the capital Astana reportedly beat up scores of young people who were returning from a concert. Some of the young people were wearing orange scarves or were carrying orange flags, a color associated with 2004's pro-democracy revolution in Ukraine.

Some of the young people later told journalists that the fighting began after police asked them why they were wearing orange.

Police have accused the group of trying to hold an unsanctioned demonstration.

Kazakhstan's opposition had been spurred into campaigning early based on fears that the presidential election could be held as soon as 2005. The chairman of the country's Central Election Commission has denied such reports. Onalsyn Zhumabekov said presidential election will be held on schedule, in December 2006.

But some opposition figures, such as Seydakhmet Quttyqadam, don't believe the election authorities.

"I think at the least they are going to have a presidential election late this year," Quttyqadam said. "They officially say there won't be elections this year, but I don't believe them. They've said it especially to prevent other parties from getting prepared. But all of a sudden they will bring this up, and the elections will all take place this year. It's clear."

But another opposition figure, Dost Koshim, the chairman of the Network of Independent Observers, said he believes there is at least one good reason why the presidential poll will be held on schedule.

"Our country and the president have applied for the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009. This issue is scheduled to be cleared up in December 2006. They usually give the answer three years in advance. That's why those in power will try their best to keep the elections in December 2006. In other words, if they organized presidential elections in December 2005 or January 2006, all the irregularities -- and I'm sure there will be irregularities -- would mar the country's image again. And if the election is assessed as unfair, with many irregularities, then in December 2006, the OSCE most likely would decline to satisfy Kazakhstan's bid for the chairmanship."

Meanwhile, it has become more difficult for Kazakh citizens to read about events such as those that took place in Shymkent, Astana, or Oskemen. On 4 May, an appeals court upheld a regional court's decision to liquidate Bastau, the company that owns the opposition newspaper "Respublika." The newspaper has published many articles critical of government policies and officials.

Galina Dyrdina, deputy editor in chief of "Respublika," called the decision illegal.

"We believe that this order, these actions of the Ministry of Information, are absolutely illegal, and we will appeal these actions in court," Dyrdina said. "We will definitely lodge an appeal."

The decision to close "Respublika" came after one of its editors, Irina Petrusheva, was briefly detained in Russia in April based on a warrant from the Kazakh government. Petrusheva is wanted in Kazakhstan for alleged tax evasion and other charges.

Russian prosecutors said the statute of limitations had expired and freed her.

(RFE/RL Kazakh Service's Merhat Sharipzhan contributed to this report.)